Johannes IV

Johannes IV (1836-1889) was an Ethiopian emperor who thwarted Egyptian, Italian, and Sudanese attempts to overrun Ethiopia and took important steps to unify the country.

Johannes IV was born in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigre with the baptismal name of Kassa. After inheriting his father's position of nobility in 1867, Kassa declared himself the independent king of Tigre. Two years later, when Takle Giorgis II, the reigning Ethiopian emperor, taunted Kassa into battle, the Tigrean king easily defeated and imprisoned the hapless emperor. Armed with the guns, ammunition, and military supplies abandoned earlier by a British expeditionary force, Kassa so built up his position that on Jan. 21, 1872, he was crowned emperor, taking the throne name of Johannes (John), after the writer of the Book of Revelation.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Egyptian revival under Khedive Ismail, and shadowy Egyptian claims to portions of the Red Sea shore combined to pose a potential threat to Ethiopia. In 1875, however, the Egyptian forces that attempted an invasion were nearly annihilated by Emperor Johannes, who forced their immediate evacuation from Ethiopia. He then turned to internal problems.

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Struggle against Invaders

The Emperor's main rival, Menilek of Shoa, was defeated after a short and decisive campaign in 1878 but was forced to pay little more than ceremonial homage to the Emperor. Throughout his reign, in fact, Johannes IV was willing to acknowledge the local rights of tributary kings, such as Menilek, provided they recognized his senior status. He later applied this pragmatic policy to areas of western Ethiopia in an attempt to modify the tradition of separatist feudal chieftains.

Throughout the 1880s Johannes was preoccupied with powers bent on territorial aggrandizement at Ethiopian expense: Italy in the Red Sea region and the revivalist Islamic state of the Mahdi in the Sudan. The Italians had purchased the important entrepôts of Assab and Massawa positioned dangerously near Ethiopian boundaries. When Johannes's efforts to negotiate with the Italians were marred by delays and diplomatic insults, the Emperor was eventually forced to attack the invaders, and in January 1887 ten thousand Ethiopian soldiers under Commander Ras Alula defeated an Italian force at Dogali. Johannes tried to arouse the entire nation against Italy, but local interests, especially those of Menilek, apparently prevented immediate action. Angered but not deterred, the cautious emperor then temporarily postponed his attack on the Italian main force.

Meanwhile the victories of the Mahdist state in the west posed a threat that also demanded immediate attention. Johannes sent a deputation to the area to arrange peace and to estimate the strength of the dervish forces. Though his position was difficult, he concluded in late 1888 that a military advance was imperative, hoping that a "final" victory over the Mahdi would leave him free to deal with the Italians and the recalcitrant Menilek. The Ethiopian army assaulted dervish fortifications and inflicted heavy losses on the Moslems, but on the verge of a brilliant victory Emperor Johannes was mortally wounded. As the news spread, the army faltered, withdrew, and finally scattered. Before his death on March 10, 1889, Johannes had tried to acknowledge his son Ras Mangasha as his successor, but the more powerful and influential Menilek of Shoa was proclaimed emperor.

Evaluation of His Reign

Emperor Johannes IV was a fervent Christian considered just and fair by most subjects. While some historians tend to view his reign as one marked by growing disunity, Johannes actually operated within the existing feudal structure, reached agreements with obviously localized leaders, and thereby contributed to a growing sense of interdependence between the provinces, particularly in certain struggles against foreign powers. This development was clearly important in repelling the attacks of Egypt and the Mahdist state and in keeping Italy at bay. That Ethiopia alone in Africa retained its independence in the European "scramble" for the continent must be attributed to the military skills of its generals and the diplomatic skills of its emperors. Menilek II's national victory over the Italians in 1896 assured Ethiopian independence, but the efforts of his predecessor, Johannes IV, to unify the country provided the bases for critical alliances that made the later national effort possible.

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Further Reading on Johannes IV

Although there is no biography of Johannes, aspects of his reign are examined in Thomas E. Marston, Britain's Imperial Role in the Red Sea Area, 1800-78 (1961); Richard Greenfield, Ethiopia: A New Political History (1965); and the chapter by Harold Marcus in L. Gann and P. Duignan, The History of Colonialism in Africa (1969). Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians (1960), remains an excellent introduction to Ethiopian culture, while Donald Levine, Wax and Gold (1965), provides a perceptive anthropological account of Amhara society in Ethiopia.